A Heart-Racing History
Medical history is pulse-raising stuff. In our buttoned-down age, we forget that there was a time when no one objected if you tried to transfuse blood from a sheep to a child, or remove parts from a dog to see if it might live without them. Books about such fumblings put us in a place where we can watch the human mind striving for clarity in a candle-lit era. Adrenaline, by Harvard professor of medicine Brian B. Hoffman, opens such a portal.
Glands have long labored in the shadow of organs. In autopsies of yore, the adrenals were cast aside by anatomists dazzled by the allure of the large and obvious kidneys. Sitting near (or ad, in Latin) the kidneys (renes), the adrenal glands are neither small nor tidy. They sag over the tops of the kidneys like globs of errant fat. They were ignored in medical texts until Bartholomaeus Eustachius noted them in 1563, after which they were by and large ignored.
Then Thomas Addison, an English physician, noted abnormal adrenal glands during autopsies on a number of patients who had suffered fatigue, faintness, weight loss, vomiting, and darkened skin. Writing in 1855, he tentatively proposed a link. Although nobody paid much attention, he was eventually rewarded with immortality when the malady became known as Addison’s disease.
In 1884, a hapless German farm girl was admitted to a hospital. She had bouts of anxiety, headaches, vomiting, and vision difficulties. Under a doctor’s fingers, her arteries were rigid. An... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Henry Kissinger once noted that President Richard Nixon believed the Central Intelligence Agency was “a refuge for Ivy League intellectuals opposed to him.” In the case of William Colby, who rose to become the director of central intelligence in 1973, Nixon was almost right. But this excellent and thorough biography by Randall Woods, a noted University of Arkansas historian of the Vietnam era in American politics whose biography of Senator William Fulbright was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, gives a more subtle and sympathetic analysis. Woods argues that Colby, a Boy Scout and devout Catholic who hated totalitarians of any stripe, was always loyal to the Constitution and to the president of the day. His loyalties were his undoing, driving him to pursue doomed counterinsurgency policies in Vietnam, which made him appear a villain to liberals, and then to disclose the CIA’s long-guarded embarrassments during congressional probes, which made him abhorrent to conservatives and many CIA veterans.
It is not easy to write a good biography without some respect or affection for the subject, and Woods holds Colby in considerable esteem. He stresses the sense of mission and commitment Colby felt about his work, which finally helped to end his first marriage after it had endured for three unhappy decades. And he concludes that Colby’s revelations of CIA scandals were in the long run beneficial to the agency, clearing out its cobwebs (and some of its... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Technological optimism is Silicon Valley’s most pervasive export. As indicated by recent remarks from Google’s senior vice president and chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, this rosy outlook is guided by the conviction that the world is broken but can be fixed if we use technology to save us from ourselves. Emphasizing the success of projects such as Google’s self-driving car, Pichette envisions a future without auto accidents and traffic jams, when human fallibility—our flawed judgment, inefficient behavior, and propensity to make mistakes—is kept in check.
Evgeny Morozov pushes back against this techno-fix ideology. While To Save Everything, Click Here is a difficult read—filled with references to diverse theorists and thick with case studies—it also provides an exemplary philosophy of technology. Morozov challenges widespread claims that life will improve dramatically once technology makes more decisions for us, makes it easier to track and analyze behavior, dismantles long-standing hierarchies, and erodes barriers to the flow of communication.
This is not to say that he is against progress. Furthermore, unlike many who engage in humanistic critiques of technology, Morozov, a New Republic contributing editor, displays a thorough grasp of the complexities that structure debates about policy, markets, and governance. In his previous book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (2011), he... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
For those of us who remember the 1970s as a time of lifestyle liberation and economic malaise, the word “anarchy” was nothing less than a punk cry of affirmation and an existential call to action. “I am an anti-Christ/I am an anarchist,” snarled Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in 1976, in one of the great forced rhyme schemes of all time. Yet the band’s song “Anarchy in the U.K.”—and punk more generally—presaged not a collapse of British or American or even Western civilization, but a do-it-yourself revolution in cultural production and consumption that rejected top-down, centralized authority and hidebound tradition. Not coincidentally, economic decentralization took place too—President Jimmy Carter deregulated airline pricing and interstate trucking rates, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher loosened government controls on business, and even French president François Mitterrand, a Socialist, ultimately sold off state-owned industries. The Iron Curtain, rusted out for decades, finally collapsed by the early 1990s, literally incapable of keeping its repressive, soul-killing act together.
In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott channels Proudhon more than punk while making a case for a kinder, gentler form of rebellion than the sort of bomb-throwing, street-fighting revolution typically associated with anarchism. Following Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th-century French theorist who asserted... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Work and Love
When the psychiatrist George Vaillant was a teenager, he received in the mail his father’s 25th Harvard class reunion book, which detailed in short paragraphs the activities of classmates who were by then in their late forties. Young George found the twisting narratives fascinating, and pored over them obsessively. The very arrival of this book must have been extremely difficult for him, as a few years earlier, George’s father, a privileged and successful man with no overt signs of depression or distress, had fatally shot himself in his backyard after a nap. George, then 10 years old, was the last to see his father alive.
Drawing upon the resilience that characterizes the themes of Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant has presided for the last five decades over the ultimate class reunion book, the Grant Study. Named after its patron, the variety-store magnate W. T. Grant, the study began tracking 268 Harvard students, most members of the classes of 1942, ’43, and ’44, in 1938. Vaillant inherited the project in the 1960s, directed it for over 30 years beginning in 1972, and remains a co-director. Exact criteria for selection to the study remain obscure—the original investigators declined Norman Mailer and Leonard Bernstein, but included John F. Kennedy. Sixty-eight members of the original cohort, now in their nineties, are still living.
Over the last 70 years, Harvard scientists have checked in on the members of the group at regular... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Don’t Bet on It
Nate Silver is the new toast of the punditocracy. The author of The New York Times’ widely followed FiveThirtyEight blog, he correctly predicted the winner of the presidential vote in all 50 states, besting his already impressive record of 49 correct calls in the 2008 election. But what if Silver had been wrong? The last person to be surprised probably would have been Silver himself. That is what makes The Signal and the Noise, in which he surveys methods of prediction in everything from Texas hold ’em to global climate change, such a useful and important book.
Throughout human history, people have ascribed special and sometimes sacred qualities to those who seem able to see the future, from the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece to Nassim Taleb, the PhD-holding derivatives trader who famously warned right before the recent financial crisis that unforeseen “black swan” events occur more often than we think. Before Silver, Warren Buffett was the prophet of the hour.
In modern times, the human preoccupation with the future has become a near obsession. Our lives revolve around questions about what will happen tomorrow: When will terrorists strike America next? How severe will the effects of climate change be? Will I outlive my retirement savings? We are bombarded by honest but flawed forecasts as well as ones designed chiefly to scare or lull us into certain courses of action. Silver’s fame is deserved, but picking election winners is a... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
David and Goliath
The Sioux and Apache tribes of North America had something profound in common with the colonists who established the United States. Like the Viet Cong, the Spanish irregulars who frustrated Napoleon, and the Afghan tribesmen who defeated the Soviet army and continue to challenge U.S. and NATO forces in our own day, they were guerrillas. The word “guerrilla” comes from the Spanish for “little war,” used to describe Spain’s 1808 uprising against Napoleon’s troops, but such a way of fighting is as old as human civilization itself. Guerrilla warfare is a rational response to overwhelming and organized force, the means by which the weak can frustrate, wear down, and overcome the strong, whether they be British troops at Lexington and Concord, French and later American troops in the Mekong Delta, or Hitler’s Wehrmacht in Yugoslavia.
It is the great merit of Max Boot’s study of guerrilla war that he stresses the venerable history of this style of fighting, starting with Thucydides’s account of how the Aetolian highlanders used their maneuverability and knowledge of the local terrain to defeat the hoplites of Athens in 426 BC. As soon as organized states began to form and to equip themselves with disciplined armies, they were opposed by enemies fighting in an older style. Boot writes, “Throughout most of our species’ long and bloody slog . . . warfare has been carried out primarily by bands of loosely organized,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Ties That Bind
“Depression is the flaw in love,” wrote Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon, his exploration of the disease that won the National Book Award in 2001. “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose.” Depression was a scourge he had experienced personally, and the book he produced was intimate yet clinical: Solomon claims that he can veer into self-pity, but it’s not a thing he indulges in on the page. Far From the Tree, the book he has spent the last decade working on, addresses another vast subject, one that isn’t discussed as often as the dark caul of depression. This is a book about families in which a child is flawed—at least in the eyes of much of the world. In it, Solomon expounds on what has turned out to be his great and enduring theme: love and its costs.
In a gargantuan volume that weaves together personal histories (he interviewed more than 300 families), cultural and historical background, and scientific research, Solomon, a journalist and lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University, describes the steep challenges parents face when they raise children who are not like themselves. He includes chapters on families with children who are deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, severely disabled, transgendered, categorized as dwarfs, diagnosed with Down syndrome, classed as criminals, and conceived as the result of rape. He even has a chapter on prodigies—focusing on musicians—that... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Disability and Democracy
In the introduction to their influential 2001 volume The New Disability History, editors Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky rightly noted that American historians have largely overlooked disability in their narratives. It is therefore invigorating to read Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, which focuses attention on people with disabilities, some of whom are known, and many of whom have been forgotten.
Nielsen excavates the long-buried history of physical difference in America and shows how disability has been a significant factor in the formation of democratic values. From the start, the United States, perhaps more than any other nation, has combined the opportunity to work with narratives of individual ambition: The Puritan work ethic and the Horatio Alger story reflect a cultural imagination that has always been preoccupied with myths of individualism and independence. But Nielsen shows that people with disabilities also reflect the progressive idealism of the United States.
The range of this book is marvelous. It extends from the early efforts by New England Puritans to reconcile the existence of physical difference with their understanding of divine order to the organized activism of Civil War veterans who fought for public assistance, and on to the movements that led to enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Along the way, Nielsen explores disability in American indigenous cultures; the stories of slaves... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Bloody New World
Bernard Bailyn has written seminal books in the field of Atlantic history, a new way of looking at the past that argues, against the usual view that America was born in splendid isolation, that the peoples, governments, and economies of Europe, the Americas, and Africa have profoundly affected one another since the 15th century. Now Bailyn provides a powerful synthesis of America’s role in the Atlantic world between 1600 and 1675. Knowledgeable readers of his massive oeuvre may approach this new book confident in the promise of expert, supple prose, dazzling research, a keen grasp of important historical questions, and strong, if not always agreeable, answers.
For those less familiar with Bailyn, consider that he has been awarded two Pulitzers, and is Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History emeritus at Harvard University, where he trained dozens of graduate students who populate the nation’s history departments and frequently win Pulitzers, Bancrofts, and other major prizes for historical writing. After his retirement from formal teaching, he founded the influential International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World at Harvard, which has attracted hundreds of young professors from around the world. Their works provide a good share of the secondary literature of The Barbarous Years. Bailyn, who recently turned 90, sets a lofty example for his fellow historians with his meticulous and extraordinary... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Until the 19th century, doctors mostly ignored the mysterious adrenal glands.
CIA director William Egan Colby came clean to Congress about scandals in the agency.
Can the Internet save us from ourselves?
Small acts of insubordination can add up to a lot.
Intimate friendships and relationships are the key to a happy--and healthy--life.
America’s top soothsayer gets philosophical about the perils of prediction.